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Believe It Or Not • Reading The Signs • Neither Idle Nor Anxious • Time After Time • Free Illusions? • Unjust Causes? • Cold Compassion? • Full-of-Mindness • Let’s Rock
Believe It Or Not
Dear Editor: In Issue 142, Benedict O’Connell discusses the idea that every belief or line of reasoning must rely on some assumption. He suggests that the problem with finding foundations for beliefs can be dealt with by using the approaches of Hegel and Heidegger. He says that neither of those philosophers regarded consciousness and reality as separate, and thinks this means that we can overcome the difficulty in understanding reality. I think we can use a much clearer argument against the view that all philosophical beliefs and arguments must rely on some assumption. This alternative is that certain foundational things must be true simply because of their meaning. One obvious example of something which must be true by definition, is the very idea that at least one thing is true. Clearly, it cannot without contradiction be true that nothing is true. Another thing which can be shown to be true without the need for any assumptions is that thought exists. This is because it cannot be correctly thought that there is no thought. And since what is meant by ‘thought’ is something which exists within consciousness, if thought exists, it follows that consciousness does too. There are many other things which can be shown to be necessarily true without making assumptions; or at least it can be shown that the only alternative to them being true is a logical contradiction.
Peter Spurrier, Essex
Reading The Signs
Dear Editor: In PN 142, Devon Bombassei writes a compelling criticism of the ability of social media algorithms to “jolt the very foundations of our democracy”, noting the irony between this and the supposed ‘liberation’ of the digital age. I think another thing jolts at the foundations, concerning the social aspect of social media. Social media gives everyone a voice (and the choice to use it or refrain), and at face value this seems consistent with our right to free speech. But we have failed to equip ourselves with the skills to use this right well, and wisely. Having the freedom to roam is pleasant enough, but I will still refrain from climbing cliffs until I have educated myself in the skills needed. We hear a lot at the moment about ‘fake news’, and successfully distinguishing the fiction from the facts has become a critical skill, still wanting. The accessibility of social media makes it a social responsibility to check ourselves for bias and falsity before we offer our thoughts to the world, at least until the world has learned to be more critical of its information (I do see the irony). I know of very influential social media posters who are critical of daily politics in a ‘populist’ way. The net effect of these trends is that those who represent us (and so should be critically accountable) are developing the skills to avoid the heat. But if my politicians hold views that will otherwise excite social media, I need to hear them, so that I can avoid them on the ballot sheet. It will be a dangerous politic, if through the use of our voices on social media, we deny ourselves real political choice because our politicians learn to hide themselves behind the image they present.
Rob Haves, Kent
Dear Editor: I felt uncomfortable reading much of what Stefan Lorenz Sorgner said in his interview with Roberto Manzocco in PN 142; but that is why I read Philosophy Now – to challenge my thoughts! However, I was particularly disturbed by a comment Sorgner makes towards the end of the interview when he asserts that access to data should be granted to algorithms. From this I take it that Sorgner accepts that an algorithm will make a ‘better’ decision than a human. (I cannot see any point in accessing data unless it is to inform a decision.) Sorgner seems to be implying that humans should no longer interfere in such decisions. But what about the ethics involved? Ultimately algorithms are written by humans, so any ethical dimensions will be the responsibility of the writer. But we have numerous examples where algorithms have not produced ethically acceptable outcomes: for example, the recent school exam grade issue in the UK, or people being wrongly assessed as ineligible for benefits. Perhaps Sorgner will reply that algorithms are in their infancy and more refined versions will remove such errors. Nevertheless, the algorithm will still be moulded by the principles of the programmer. How will society ensure that the writers of algorithms reflect the values of society rather than their own values and interests? Will there be the facility to change the underlying ethics of an algorithm should society undergo an ethical shift? With our present, flawed, system of decision-making, we build in checks and balances; for example, appeal courts.
It appears to me that any human living in a posthuman/transhuman world will be without morals – that ethical decisions will be taken away from us. I would argue that having morals is the essential ingredient of humanity. In a world of algorithmic decision-making, ethics appears to become redundant, leaving human beings as mere automata.
Michael Shaw, Huddersfield
Neither Idle Nor Anxious
Dear Editor: In Issue 142, Jacob Snyder discusses the views of Aristotle and John Locke on the topic of work and leisure. Snyder explains that Locke sees labour as part of human nature: “In order to achieve the felicity of which a human being is capable, regardless of her class, she must work.” I’d agree in part with what Locke’s saying, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that not all work is conducive to human flourishing. This is where I find the thoughts of Karl Marx insightful. Like Locke, Marx acknowledges that labour is a bare fact of existence: if we wish to survive, we must work. Marx would also agree that “Labor is thus not a necessary evil, but is instead the necessary ground of all happiness.” But Marx argues that under certain (capitalist) conditions, work can be a tremendously alienating activity.
If work is to play the role in human life that Locke and Marx believe it can, perhaps it’s time to give serious thought to the different forms that human labour can take, and which forms are best suited to human flourishing.
Kevin Hattie, Glasgow
Time After Time
Dear Editor: It seems to me that, just as with the story of the Ship of Theseus, Dustin Gray’s article on the persistence of objects through time in Issue 141 starts from a false premise. I would argue that no object persists through time: ‘objects’ are just names we give to clusters of interacting particles changing too slowly for us to perceive. In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the hero speeds into the future, leaving his house decaying and crumbling before his very eyes. This same sequence of change and decay is happening in real-time, unnoticed, while beyond our ken, even mountains wear away over geological time.
Yet even a simple table is never the same each time we see it. The table appears to persist as the ‘same object’ because (1) its incremental changes are so small and slow they elude us, and (2) as long as it is performing its function, it is still ‘the table’. It is the same with the Ship of Theseus. But these objects just represent human naming conventions, not persistence or identity over time.
The same applies to our identification of living beings; yet organisms don’t persist either. Although day-to-day changes go undetected, meet a long-lost acquaintance and your first reaction is the shock of change, quickly superseded by recognition from memory. So we identify the same friend despite the fact that they’re clearly not materially ‘the same’. As Carlo Rovelli says in Reality Is Not What It Seems, “the nature of man is not his internal structure but the network of personal, familial and social interactions within which he exists.” Just like a table, a person is a metamorphosing series of events.
Brian Johns, Wheathampstead
Dear Editor: In Issue 141 Dustin Gray proposes an answer to the question of what it means for an object to persist in time, known as presentism: ‘To be real and to be present are one and the same thing’. This is most concisely and beautifully expressed in these lines from T.S. Eliot’s 1930 poem ‘Ash-Wednesday’:
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And in one place
I rejoice that things are as they are…
Reg Beach, Penzance, Cornwall
Dear Editor: In Issue 141 Siobhain Lash talked about reconciling determinism with moral responsibility, using Harry Frankfurt’s thought experiment as an example. Frankfurt asks us to imagine a thought experiment in which Mr Jones has a choice between two courses of action, A and B. However, what Jones doesn’t know is that Mr Black is going to manipulate him to choose A. Jones is inevitably going to choose A, whatever his first intentions are. Frankfurt argues that if Mr Jones also wants to choose A, and the reason to choose A ‘is his own’, we can say that Jones bears some responsibility over this action. As Lash writes, “even when a genuine alternative choice to do otherwise is not available, that person is still morally responsible for their actions, if their reason is their own.”
However, I think this example doesn’t fully resemble reality, and, moreover, that we can’t have moral responsibility in a deterministic world. What if Jones had a machine wired to his brain that made him really want to choose A? Now Jones chooses A because he wants to; but can we still say he’s responsible for his action? I would argue that we can’t, because Jones’ state of mind, in particular, his ‘reason to choose as he does’ is directly caused by a factor outside his control.
Likewise, an ordinary person’s state of mind and reason to choose the way she does is also caused by external factors outside her control. Determinism implies she could not have done other than she did; but we should not forget that she could not have wanted something else, either. Therefore, we can’t hold people responsible in the traditional sense of the word, required for them to deserve punishment as a matter of justice.
Does that mean we should not punish people? Of course not. We still ought to punish criminals to deter them from committing crimes in the future, and to discourage other people from committing crimes, too. But saying that they’re morally responsible for their actions is to rob the word ‘responsible’ of its meaning.
Stef Deuring, Amsterdam
Dear Editor: In PN 141 Jason Morgan advocates casuistry, which is the judging of cases not through the precedent of law but case-by-case. Admittedly, the law has become exceedingly complex, but at least the law is defined: under casuistry, the law would be whatever the judge said it was. The consequence being that I could not possibly know the legality of at least some of my actions, so I could be tried for something which I could not have known to be illegal at the time. The legality of my action would also depend upon which judge conducted my trial. Hence, one person could be found guilty for an action by one judge, whilst another person could carry out exactly the same action, be tried by a different judge, and be found not guilty. The concept of equality before the law no longer exists. I also cannot see how there could be a system of appeal under casuistry, since each verdict is based solely upon the personal reaction of the judge.
Would judges under casuistry always act in the best interest of society, or might they tend towards their own best interests? Given that a casuistic judge acts without reference to statute or case law, the possibility of bribing such a judge would be considerably higher since there is no criteria against which to evaluate the judgement. The question also arises as to who would appoint judges, and on what criteria?
Should anyone prefer casuistry to our present imperfect legal system, I suggest they read Kafka’s The Trial.
Michael Shaw, Huddersfield
Dear Editor: The notion suggested by Michael McManus (Letters, Issue 141) that there is an inherent relationship between democracy (liberty) and capitalism is not only historically inept but facile. Anyone studying the history of the last three hundred years – for example, the history of slavery (a.k.a. ‘early capitalism’); the development of capitalism during the colonial era (no colonial state was in the least democratic); the emergence of fascism within Western Europe (there was a symbiotic relationship between the fascist state and capitalism) and the rise of Stalinism and Maoism (both forms of ‘state capitalism’, to use Lenin’s term) – will realise that democracy and capitalism are almost antithetical concepts. Presently the most ardent promoters of capitalism – Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China – are hardly democratic states, while even the Western welfare state, after the onslaught of neoliberalism, has come to be described as ‘government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich’. Moreover, all institutions and relationships within capitalism’s economic system are completely undemocratic.
Didn’t Adam Smith describe the state as instituted “for the defence of the rich against the poor, of those who have property against those who have none at all”? Hardly democratic!
Brian Morris, Lewes, E.Sussex
Dear Editor: I’m writing in reaction to Douglas Groothuis’ defence of conservative responses to sexual ethics in Issue 141. Groothuis, responding to Rick Aaron in Issue 138, argues that living a life of celibacy if you are homosexual is practical and feasible, and concludes that conservative sexual ethics are not especially detrimental to gay people. But Groothuis does not consider the detrimental effects such behaviour could have on a person’s mental health. The theologian Norman Pittenger argues that condemning homosexuality is tantamount to asking someone to reject something basic in their nature, and hence to live an inhuman life. Sexuality is a very important part of our identity, and how the fundamental suppression of our identity affects our mental health needs no explaining. Groothuis frames the issue in terms of sexual acts, yet sexuality and the forming of relationships is not limited to sexual activity. Rather, relationships are about love, and a sense of support with someone with whom you can connect. Groothuis is perhaps correct to argue that gay celibacy is ‘practically feasible’, but entirely lacks the understanding of the internalised self-hatred such an approach often produces, and so its feasibility doesn’t seem the primary issue to consider.
The point of my response is to ask readers to consider this: if we accept that sexuality is at its most basic a biological process present in all animals and cultures, and that God is the author of the universe, what kind of God would ask homosexuals to live in mental turmoil, a state of constant repression and rejection, which He Himself engineered?
Paul Kerry, The Peak District
Dear Editor: While Raymond Tallis’s argument against solipsism (the idea that you are the only mind) in Issue 141 works well within the framework of his scientific-analytic take on philosophy, I think he loses something by treating it as a ‘doctrine’ that one can either take on or not, rather than as an idea pervasive to the human condition.
When I first encountered solipsism, it was attached to an extreme application of Berkeley’s idealism. My thought at the time was: ‘ Okay. But how does it apply to anything but crazy people and episodes of The Twilight Zone ?’ It just seemed to be a novelty that lacked the general application that good philosophy is generally about. Sartre changed all that. As he argues in Being and Nothingness, solipsism occurs in a practical sense when we reduce the other person to an object – and we do this all the time.
This tendency is the result of three dynamics. First, there’s the fact that we’re objects occupying space. Second, there’s the experiential factor hinted at by Tallis, that we are always faced with the dilemma of being prisoners in our own skins. We can never get outside of ourselves enough to even begin to get inside the other’s mind. Finally, there is the issue that you know the perceiving thing is there – it’s looking out of you – but you can’t assume the perception of the other. That takes a leap of faith, and sometimes that leap fails to be taken.
Given this toxic mix, it’s easy to see how one group of people might feel licensed to not recognise the full humanity of others, and so, for example, lead another group of people into ovens to exterminate them. Note also how the Nazis referred to Jewish people as ‘rats’ – much as Hutu extremists in Rwanda referred to Tutsis as ‘cockroaches’. As far as that dehumanising strategy worked, it can only be because we assume other species lack the perceptions we have. But: your house is invaded by flies; you put up a fly strip. A fly gets stuck – hardly a glitch in your life. Yet you can be certain that it’s the most catastrophic moment of that fly’s life.
D E Tarkington, Nebraska
Dear Editor: Thanks to Tallis in Issue 141. He reminded me of my thoughts when encountering solipsism for the first time… I present the colander argument against full-blown solipsism: If solipsism is true, everything in the world is a product of my mind. I cannot imagine inventing the colander. Thus the world is not a product purely of my mind. Any other object or idea can be substituted for the colander: black holes, Norman Wisdom, pedicures being only a beginning to the unlikeliness in this unlikely world of ours.
Keep on thinking!
Dear Editor: In her article, ‘Do We Want To Be Free?’ in Issue 141, Siobhan Lyons appears to take us to the edge of the void to have a long, deep look into its cavernous depths of reflection and action. Too much of one or the other – of reflection or action – leads to a form of insanity. I have felt so alone all my life contemplating the freedom to be, and it hasn’t been a free ride. If we don’t choose freely what’s best for ourselves, somebody or something else will choose for us. Nature, they say, abhors a vacuum.
I’m reminded of Camus in the vein of Sisyphus rolling a rock eternally up the hill, over and over. There is that existential moment when we can enjoy our intellectual freedom to choose, as Sisyphus does during his break walking slowly back down the hill to resume his futile duty of rolling the rock back up again. More than this I cannot say, for humans seem to want to cloak everything they do with some meaning and gravitas in what they do to succeed in achieving their desired goals. We are shrewd when we fail, as well, finding excuses through cognitive dissonance, etc. People understand clearly how holding two mutually exclusive ideas is valid, how paradoxes hold both absurd results and happy or tragic endings.
Jack Baret, Toronto